Obama Job Training Strategy Backs Community Colleges

Calling community colleges the “unsung heroes” of the U.S. educational system, President Barack Obama called for federal funding to support the two-year, nonprofit institutions in helping put Americans back to work and boost the economy.

Obama spoke at the first White House summit on community colleges yesterday, which brought together more than 100 college presidents, advocates and teachers from across the U.S. to discuss how to best serve about 12 million students. To reach his goal of making the U.S. No. 1 in the world in the percentage of adults with college graduates by 2020, community colleges will have to increase the number of degrees they give out by 5 million over the next 10 years, Obama said.

The focus on community colleges, which includes partnerships with businesses, may have some political benefits for Obama, said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“Clearly the appeal is to people who are out of work, obviously dissatisfied, probably upset that community college classes are so crowded because so many people are there trying to pick up credentials,” Baker said in a telephone interview. “So he’s got both a receptive audience and some good political ammunition to use on the Republicans.”

Criticizing Republicans

Obama criticized Republicans for their spending priorities in their election-year pledge to voters. He accused them of planning to cut education funding to trim $100 billion from the $477 billion that lawmakers set for discretionary spending next year while supporting extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Reducing education spending would hurt the U.S.’s ability to compete against up-and-coming economies, Obama said.

Jobs requiring at least a two-year degree will grow twice as fast in the coming years as jobs requiring no college degree, Obama said.

“We will not fill those jobs, we will not keep those jobs on our shores, without community colleges,” Obama said.

Obama said the Republican plan would result in cutting the education budget by 20 percent.

“China is not slashing education 20 percent,” Obama said at the conference. “India is not slashing education. We are in a fight for the future.”

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called Obama’s figure “a made-up number.”

‘Untrue’ Points

While Republican leaders have said they will trim discretionary spending, they haven’t identified where they will make significant cuts.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, said the party’s plan, called the Pledge to America, doesn’t include “any of the specific cuts” cited by Obama.

“The president’s untrue talking points don’t change the fact that the American people are asking, ‘where are the jobs’ and he has no new answers,” Steel said in an e-mail.

Obama announced an initiative yesterday to link companies including McDonald’s Corp., Gap Inc., Pacific Gas & Electric, Accenture Plc and United Technologies Corp., with community colleges to develop job-training programs. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also announced a $35 million grant program to help students complete community college degrees in nine states that serve the biggest populations of low-income students.

Reduced Initiative

In July 2009, Obama announced a $12 billion, 10-year plan to help community colleges using competitive grants that would expand partnerships with businesses, develop worksite education programs, improve remedial and adult education programs, modernize facilities and expand online learning programs, the administration said at the time. The proposal would be paid for by ending subsidies to banks and private lenders for student loans.

Congress scaled back the initiative to $2 billion during budget reconciliation, shifting a majority of the funds to pay for the health-care overhaul, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the Washington-based American Council on Education.

The Obama administration “wanted a broad program that would allow them to do virtually anything to help community colleges,” Hartle said in a telephone interview. “The program that was funded really forces them to focus on programs for individuals who have lost their job as a result of the economic downturn.”

Greater Recognition

For-profit colleges called for greater recognition of their role in reaching the president’s educational goals. The for-profit institutions have been criticized by the Obama administration for misleading applicants about job prospects and are the target of proposed tighter regulation on recruiting practices.

About 12 percent of U.S. post-secondary students are enrolled in for-profit colleges, many of them low-income and minorities, according to the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, a Washington-based industry group formerly called the Career College Association.

“The millions of students in private sector schools deserve the same attention and encouragement as those students in other postsecondary institutions,” said Harris Miller, president and chief executive officer of the industry group, in a letter today to Jill Biden. “Please don’t forget to include our students in future White House discussions of how best to prepare our future workforce for the 21st Century.”

Pleased Supporters

Community college leaders and supporters were pleased by the recognition from Obama, said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, a Washington-based advocacy group. Obama’s goal to add another 5 million community college graduates over the next 10 years would be a 50 percent increase over the estimates given current graduation rates, Baime said.

More money will be needed to reach those goals, James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, said in an interview at the summit.

“It’s one thing to set up targets,” Jacobs said. “It’s another thing to give the resources needed to get to the targets. At some point the resources need to be discussed.”

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